Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

A skiing adventure to check Mono Lake’s level

This January is proving to be the wettest January in our weather recording history. In Lee Vining, we saw 5.5 inches of snow on January 4, and we received a combined 3.92 inches of rain on January 8 and 9. With all this water pouring into Mono Lake, I set out with my coworker Andrew to measure the lake level on cross country skis.

Mono Lake Committee Project Specialist Andrew Youssef. Photo by Robbie Di Paolo.
An amused Andrew shuffles towards Lee Vining Creek. Photo by Robbie Di Paolo.

It was Wednesday, January 11 at 10:00am. The sky was blue, the wind was calm, and the day before had enveloped the basin in new snow. To get to the lake, we decided to take the most direct path, which meant cutting behind the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center and descending into the canyon through which Lee Vining Creek flows. During our descent we flushed a couple of black-tailed jackrabbits from their brushy hideouts and we were chased by Spotted Towhees, waving us along with their dipping tail feathers. With some meandering between tufts of sagebrush and a final glide along some frozen tire tracks, we made it to the lake level gauge.

Descending into Lee Vining Canyon with views of Mono Lake and Negit Island. Photo by Andrew Youssef.
Descending toward Lee Vining Creek with views of Mono Lake and Negit Island. Photo by Andrew Youssef.

The change in the lake level was apparent even before we conducted the reading. On December 31 when I had last read the lake level there was a dry sandy land bridge that formed a walkway to some volcanic rock coated in tufa. When we arrived at the lake on January 11, the land bridge was submerged in a couple of inches of water.

Our reading showed that the lake had risen by about 4 inches since December 31, which in terms of water volume is an increase of over 10,000 acre-feet of water. That’s 10,000 football fields each with a foot of standing water!

Robbie checks out the lake level gauge. Mono Lake rose about six inches last week, to 6377.5 feet above sea level. Photo by Andrew Youssef.
Robbie checks out the lake level gauge. Photo by Andrew Youssef.

With some good news in hand, Andrew and I began the return trip. At this point a storm had begun to roll in and a biting headwind began to howl. With the rapidly changing weather conditions we opted to take the county road back to Highway 395 and we arranged for a pickup at Old Marina. Exhausted and exhilarated, sweating and freezing, we cursed the wind with big smiles on our faces as we trudged along the icy dirt road.

Robbie breaking tracks as the storm rolls in. Photo by Andrew Youssef.
Robbie breaking tracks as the storm rolls in. Photo by Andrew Youssef.
Project Specialists Andrew and Robbie braving the wind. Photo by Andrew Youssef.
Project Specialists Andrew and Robbie braving the wind. Photo by Andrew Youssef.